We have commonly identified innovation as a thing that occurs inside something else, like a business or a team. The innovation team, the skunkworks, the intrapreneur. That new-thing-creating function might have tentacles that reach out into the world and pull new stimuli in, like the tentacles of an octopus, but it's being done to feed or inform the discrete animal.
What happens if we switch the metaphor -- from pulling on the universe to feed a single creature, to building, strengthening, growing the universe that the thing is feeding off of? What if the job of fostering innovation is not just that of feeding the thing in which we live, but feeding the thing where we all live?
That risks sounding a little kum-ba-yah, but it may be a pragmatically more effective, and more functional, strategy in the economy that is emerging around us. As industries by and large shift from vertical integration to complex supply networks, as local economies become intricately intertwined with global forces and dependent on global trends, we may find that the health of the network matters more -- not just to our happiness, but our personal and company survival, than whether we are able to pull enough stuff inside our own membranes. If the network we depend on becomes toxic, how strong we are inside our fragile borders may not matter very much.
When I first started writing about technology startups, I heard founders express faith that if you built something of value, it would generate income in some manner. This optimism appealed to me, but I had a hard time believing it: I had spent my life in the transactional world, often struggling to find adequate payment for the value I thought I was providing.
I don't know if it played out the way these folks thought it would. That doesn't mean they were wrong -- their creation may not have become Google, but for many it allowed them to step into a good job with a good community. And so even if it didn't follow the plan some might have expected, it seems like it worked in some fashion. You don’t find a whole lot of unemployed ex-software founders.
Tech people adapted the use of the term "ecosystem" to describe the system-within-a larger-system that they were trying to cultivate. They knew that their economic and personal success -- given their skills and the nature of their businesses and the defining factors of the technology that they were built on -- would require an economic and interpersonal structure very different from what the Organization Man industries had relied on before. So they had to not only reach out the tentacles, but be ready to dissolve their own walls, integrating into the network in a way that operating agreements and non disclosure forms didn’t fit.
I’m by no means the first, and definitely not the last, to draw this analogy. But with every month, with every new technology, this networked paradigm becomes more and more part of the underpinning of how we operate. The risk in any period of change happens when your paradigm breaks its internal consistency -- when we perceive the emerging system, but we act and say and do according to an outdated and ill-fitting set of rules. When we intellectually understand our dependence on the network, but we continue to simply grab out of it whatever we can.
Conventional wisdom says that a blog post should have a straightforward five-point solution, easy take-aways. But what we’re talking about is really awareness: being conscious of the fact that our experience paradigm and our doing paradigm may be clashing, creating problems that we didn’t need or want.
There’s no clear road map to the emerging economy. But here’s five take-aways that might help for now:
Be aware of what actions fit the old or new systems
Decide where you want to be
Act on that intentionally
Keep doing that. A lot.